SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Wayne Maeda, a pioneer in the field of Asian American studies, was remembered at California State University, Sacramento on May 3 by more than 100 people his work has touched from all across California.
Maeda, a founding faculty member of the CSUS Ethnic Studies Department, touched the lives of many and left a lasting legacy in scholarship before he peacefully passed away due to cancer, Feb. 27. He was 65. His wife, Lorrie Toohey, passed away three days later on March 2, after her own bout with cancer at the age of 64.
The event, organized by fellow professors Tim Fong and Greg Mark, both of the Ethnic Studies Department at the university, featured performances by Sacramento Taiko Dan and various guest speakers.
Otis Scott, dean emeritus of the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies, read an excerpt of a letter he had written to Maeda shortly before he passed away. “In a real sense, you are really the heart and soul of Asian American Studies,” he said and credited Maeda as a solid intellectual and a committed educator.
Tohru (Ty) Yamanaka, director emeritus of the Asian American Studies Program, detailed the legacy of the university’s ethnic studies department and Maeda’s part in it. He said, following the Korean War, the U.S. looked inward to face domestic issues, one of the biggest being the issue of segregation. As student movements swept the nation, according to Yamanaka, CSUS students joined in during the mid-1960s.
When Asian American students needed a faculty advisor for their ethnic students association, many faculty members were reluctant to get involved, but Yamanaka accepted the position.
Various ethnic student associations worked together to eventually form an academic program for the school. It was through these student association activities, as well as anti-war activities, that Maeda joined as a graduate student. “There (weren’t) any kind of resources for Asian American studies or ethnic studies. We had to develop our own ideas,” said Yamanaka, the first director of the Asian American Studies Program.
Mark read an essay Maeda wrote two years ago on the creation of the ethnic studies program. Maeda said the program was formed as students at the school were becoming aware and politicized by the Black Panthers marching in the capital in 1967, the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. “But it was not until the Asian Experience in America, Yellow Identity Symposium, … that we began to think of Asians in America and our identity,” Maeda wrote. The January 1969 symposium was the first Asian American conference in the U.S. He went on to write that he and other ethnic minorities, along with radical whites on campus organized for the creation of ethnic studies. Maeda also acknowledged the pioneers of ethnic studies from San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley for giving guidance on how to form an ethnic studies department of their own.
Mark said he had first met Maeda at the 1969 UC Berkeley symposium. He pointed out that Isao Fujimoto, senior lecturer emeritus from UC Davis, also spoke at the conference. Fujimoto spoke briefly about Maeda. “While this is a Sacramento gathering, Wayne had also been teaching for us at UC Davis,” he said.
“In terms of his generosity, I remember when he finished his book on the history of the Japanese Americans in the Sacramento area and he did it without any pay at all,” Fujimoto said. “When we celebrated the publication, Toko Fujii, who got him involved in the project, gave him a payment. It was no money at all, but he got a laptop computer, and Wayne was so impressed he said, ‘Gee, if I knew you were going to do this, I would have written two books.’”
According to Mark, Maeda touched many people. “In the last four years of his teaching career, … he taught 52 courses,” he said. With an average of 40 students per class and a 42-year career, Mark said Maeda likely taught more than 21,000 students, even more including Sacramento City College and UC Davis.
Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, considered Maeda his former teacher as a friend and mentor. He said Maeda had always worked for historical accuracy and to inspire and educate his students. Taguma said he had been transformed by taking Maeda’s class, which he had likely “wandered into” on “accident.” Taguma said it was the “best mistake that I have made,” as he went on to change his major to ethnic studies following Maeda’s class.
Taguma said he owed Maeda for his part in uncovering his father’s story as a draft resister during World War II. Taguma added that Maeda was instrumental in putting together landmark works and exhibitions, such as the 1992 “Continuing Traditions: Japanese Americans” exhibit at the Sacramento History Museum, which acknowledged the wartime resisters and the experiences of all Nikkei.
Taguma said Maeda contributed as a writer, submitting some 70 book reviews over the years to the Nichi Bei Times and Nichi Bei Weekly.
In closing, Taguma said Maeda was the first person he asked to become a board member of the nonprofit Nichi Bei Foundation as the Nichi Bei Times was closing in 2009. “I’ve always appreciated his support and belief in me, and his example is something I’ll carry with me till I die.”
Another former student, Kelly Bitz, had entered the university as a history major, yet she did not know about the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans until she took Maeda’s class. She resolved to teach others about the wartime incarceration and became a double major in Asian American studies. “I was never a great student,” Bitz admitted. “But I really wanted to do something and believed I could do it, and I did it. Wayne was very much a part of that.”
Bitz now works as the education and programs manager at the California Museum, which houses the permanent exhibit, “Uprooted! Japanese Americans During WWII.”
Several speakers also came from the community to remember Maeda. Council of American Islamic Relations’ Basim Elkarra spoke on the Japanese American and Muslim communities’ shared bonds and how Maeda, along with the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, had stood up for the Muslim community after 9-11.
Eastwind Books owner Harvey Dong, Maeda’s friend from middle school and an activist, spoke about how Maeda had supported him, not only as an educator, but as a friend.
Korean American journalist K.W. Lee, who said he was the first Asian immigrant to be hired by a mainstream U.S. newspaper, called Maeda one of the best and noblest of Japanese Americans. The 85-year-old former Sacramento Union reporter said Maeda was a part of a larger group of activists in Sacramento, stating that CSUS was a birthplace to many Asian American activists. “Back in the 1970s there were few Asian Americans out there, but every one of them were involved … almost every person I know, they kept their flame alive,” he said.
A staff member from Assemblymember Richard Pan’s office presented a resolution for Maeda, stating “in recognition for his indomitable spirit, honest demeanor and many accomplishments.”
Mark closed the tribute with one final memory of Maeda. He recalled a series of e-mails he and Fong had received from Maeda, pushing them along to carry on his work. Mark said Maeda approached him after Lee wrote to Maeda about his collection of news articles. “Wayne pushes Tim to keep writing and Wayne pushes me to work on this new archive,” said Mark. The archive comprised of Lee’s writings from the Sacramento Union that
Lee wanted to be given to the university. Maeda had been working with Mark and Lee until December of 2012 when his health began to degrade.
As Maeda’s health began to decline, Mark was asked to pick up more books and papers from Maeda. It was then that Mark began to see another element, “the Wayne Maeda collection.”
Mark said Maeda’s books were not only about Japanese Americans. “He had everything,” he said. Mark took the rich resource of information and history and worked with a group of 14 students he met with every Friday to organize Lee and Maeda’s papers. Mark said half of the 14 students working with him on the archival project were Hmong American. Mark said the students agreed to also start recording the Hmong American experience using the resources Maeda left behind, starting with the students’ own experiences.
The work compiled will form the Wayne Maeda Asian American Studies Special Collections and Archives. “We in Asian American Studies will require our students to go into special collections to do work that’s really kind of graduate level work,” said Mark.
“Wayne’s legacy lives on,” Mark said in closing. “His desire to educate thousand of students will continue.”